Is employee longevity Bella’s key to success?

Some individuals working under co-owners Bill Shumate and Joanie Corneil have logged in more than two decades of employment and are still happy to return to work. Why do they stick around?

Tampa, Fla. – The restaurant industry is reputed to have a high turnover rate, so when word got around that one Southern eatery has managed to maintain many staff members for more than 20 years, people wanted to know the type of people who can make a team stay put.

“If somebody doesn’t play well with others, we just get rid of them,” bar manager Larry Heisel jokingly states.  Heisel started with Shumate and Corneil when they were restaurateurs in Oklahoma City. “The owners are fun people to work with. Very nice people. They run a tight ship, but they also make it very enjoyable.”

General Manager Eric Potts, who started working at Bella’s as a busboy back in 1989, agrees. “They are very honest with me and I’m honest with them,” he says. “And they know what they’re doing.”

Heisel and Potts worked at numerous restaurants belonging to Shumate and Corneil before deciding to follow them to Central Florida. “I just like the way they run things,” Potts explains. “They are very professional.”

But it’s not just being at Bella’s that keeps them bonded. Potts says he, Heisel and Shumate also share one major interest outside of work: Sooners Football. “We all went to the University of Oklahoma so we’re all Sooners fans,” the GM explains. “We go to each others’ houses to watch the football games.”

Don’t they miss being back home to watch the pigskin soar over home turf? With a sense of humor and quick one-liner delivery one would expected from a seasoned bartender, Heisel explains with a mischievous grin, “I think it was George Burns that said ‘Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family… in another city.”

Since moving, Heisel and Potts have seen time pass in a most interesting way—by watching other people’s families. “I’ve seen couples meet and hook up here. Then they eventually get married and bring their children in,” Heisel says. “We hired a cocktail waitress a few years ago who was working her way through college; her parents were one of those couples. I remember their daughter coming in as a little girl.”

“Yeah, I employ people now who used to come in the restaurants as babies in their parents arms,” Potts says. “Some of them are currently hostesses!”

Manager Michelle Rice, also not a newcomer to the eatery, began as a server and has been at Bella’s about half as long as Heisel and Potts. She says she logs in the late hours but still finds her job rewarding. “It’s a fun place to work,” Rice says. “There are ups and downs in every business, but we try to make everything fun. There’s no negativity here. I don’t ever mind coming to work.”

Aside from the great food and atmosphere inside this 5,000-square-foot authentic Italian eatery, which officially celebrates its 20th anniversary on July 31, 2006, Rice says there is one major reason why kids clamor for Bella’s: Bob the Pizza Guy, who has been at Bella’s since the day it opened.

“Bob’s a fireball,” she says. “He’s a good guy. He’s got to be close to 70 years old and is truly an icon around here.  He usually makes about one pizza per minute and once he made more than 80 in two hours!

“To see him on weekends is quite impressive. The wood-burning fire is at about 1000 degrees and the kitchen is open so kids pull their chairs up to watch. He gives them all Hershey’s Kisses, and he has a great sense of humor.  One time, a customer asked him what his favorite toppings were and he responded, ‘I don’t eat pizza!’”

Though Bella’s has managed to change with the times, constantly updating its look and menu to keep customers coming back, Shumate says he and Corneil know why the eatery—and its service team—has been so successful: “There’s nothing more we love do to than feed the people of South Tampa. Ask any of our employees – they’ll tell you it’s true.”